Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wears red lipstick and a tan turtleneck and is in three quarters view.

Knock Down The House: A Tool For Grassroots Activism And Community Empowerment

By Karen Gaytan
Assistant Multimedia Director

June 26, 2018 marked a turning point for progressive politics in the United States. It was Election Day in New York City, and virtually-unknown newcomer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would make headlines across the country for what is now considered one of the biggest upsets in American politics. After beating 14-term incumbent Joseph Crowley, Ocasio-Cortez would go from virtual anonymity to political powerhouse seemingly overnight. Today, she is referred to as the second most talked about politician in the country. It’s hard to imagine a news cycle where AOC isn’t fire-snapping truth-bombs via Twitter or becoming a focal point for right-wing scrutiny.

This wasn’t always the reality, though. After a tumultuous 2016 election cycle, many were left wondering how to engage in a political process that disenfranchised the most vulnerable. AOC wasn’t the only one looking for hope. At the time, a grassroots political action committee known as Brand New Congress sought to empower working class people to run for office and embark on a valiant and rebellious mission: get money out of politics.

What ensued for the next two years was beyond anyone’s scope of imagination.

The documentary Knock Down the House tells the story of four working-class women running for U.S. Congress in 2018: Cori Bush in Missouri, Paula Jean Swearengin in West Virginia, Amy Vilela in Nevada, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York. At the time, the road to June 26 was long, tiring, and with no clear victory in sight. The women in this story had a relentless commitment to their own communities and the David and Goliath story behind one of the most rising politicians in the nation.

“What’s powerful about this film is that it shows the fundamentals of organizing. We’re trying to tell folks that [they’re] worth it,” said Ocasio-Cortez in an interview with KTSW prior to the screening. “While there can be a lot of differences between communities, the fundamentals of organizing are still the same. The general takeaway of what we’re trying to share with folks is that [they’re] worth it. And that [they] are powerful and that [they] are enough as [they] are to throw [their] hat in the ring and [they] don’t have to jump through more hoops to prove that.”

Knock Down the House captures the struggles, challenges, and behind-the-scenes of running a grassroots political campaign. Beyond the strength of the characters, perhaps the film’s most powerful pursuit is the way in which it sets the table for working-class people running for office.

“For one of us to make it through, a hundred of us have to try,” shares then-nominee Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with sister candidate Amy Vilela after Vilela lost her primary race in Nevada.

As activists, I think many times we grow notoriously cynical of the systems in place that perpetuate injustice. The all-too-familiar default mode is to be angry and disappointed. But what this film captures and communicates is the beginning of a movement. At every critical point in human history, there have been forces fighting with each other that have been met with resistance. This resistance is met with hope and most importantly with a relentless commitment to the communities we form part of.

The film was recently picked up by Netflix at Sundance Film Festival and is set to be released on May 1 of this year.

Featured photo by Karen Gaytan.

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